Sustainable Development


Sustainable Development, a term that first appeared in the 1980 World Conservation Strategy as shorthand for “a path to human progress that has the capacity to continue in the long term”. The term gained international recognition through the 1987 Brundtland Report as “economic and social development that meets the needs of the current generation without undermining the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. By the time of the Second Earth Summit in 1992, a worsening of major environmental trends and persistent poverty in a world richer than ever before led 170 governments to agree “sustainable development” as a policy framework for tackling evidence that the demands of human economic activity were overwhelming the capacity of the Earth’s biological systems to supply resources and services.


The idea of sustainable development is not new. Over many years, our own species, Homo sapiens, has evolved strategies (including a large brain that uses 20 percent of food intake) for living with the vicissitudes of the environment and each other. So how have we ended up with a strategy that is unsustainable?

The answer to that question has been pursued from many perspectives—social, economic, feminist, scientific, psychological, political, geographical, and religious—over many decades. A simplification of the arguments might read as follows:

In the beginning, human beings respected and often revered the natural world for the sustenance it provided and the risk it represented. Survival depended on collaboration in order to obtain food or fend off wild animals for example. Competition between humans increased with agriculture and the need for access to fertile land and water (around 10,000 years ago). All spiritual traditions have foundations that promote living in harmony with the environment and with each other.

The success of the human species is manifest in its numbers and global spread. By growing from around 1 billion people 200 years ago to nearly 6.5 billion people today, humans have broken two ecological laws. One says “big, fierce animals are rare”, another that “evolution’s safety catch is its slowness”, meaning mistakes have time to be rectified before the system as a whole is damaged.

As a consequence, the speed of mankind’s economic and technological development has overwhelmed the capacity of the environment (and ourselves) to adapt or control it. In the process, we forgot our biochemical interdependency with the environment (for health and prosperity) and the value of dependency on each other (for well-being, peace, and justice). Disconnected from our practical and spiritual place in the great scheme that is life on Earth, we have no viable strategy for 2050 when the global population is forecast to exceed 9 billion.

Because their lives depend on it, most less affluent people do understand the intimate connections between a healthy environment, good social relations, and a successful economy. Complex patterns of land ownership and kinship in Africa are a testimony to human strategies designed to secure livelihoods and peace. Today, in rich and poor countries, what are seen as “traditional” development paths based on indigenous, mostly local, experience and knowledge, are held up as alternatives to “modern” ones based on globally competitive marketplaces for commodities, goods, and services. Most agree, however, that sustainable development will depend on rethinking the definition of economic success so it takes proper account of social and environmental costs and benefits.


The way the economy works has been shaped by changes in thinking and technology over many years. Although Plato wrote of the effects of deforestation on local climate, and people like Scottish geologist James Hutton noted that “life is the final cause not only for the circulation of the blood but for the revolution of the globe”, it was the ideas of Hutton’s contemporary, Adam Smith, that have prevailed. Smith is considered the founding father of economics, and it is his view of markets, competition, and self-interest as the primary motivator for social and commercial interaction, that govern the modern economy.

“Ecological” thought regained currency in the 1960s, focusing on the impact on the environment and human health of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and the power of the corporations that marketed them. At the time, particularly in Europe and the US, the post-World War II generation, with no immediate worries about education or employment, turned its mind to population growth, nuclear proliferation, a degrading environment, and social injustices including war, poverty, and racial and sexual discrimination. The manned moon landing in 1969 symbolized the technological confidence of the times, but it also made visible the physical limits—and beauty—of the Earth.


The First Earth Summit, a United Nations (UN) conference on the human environment, was held in Stockholm in 1972. It stimulated the establishment of many international and national agencies and organizations, though most maintain separate departments for environmental protection and human development and economic issues.

That began to change during the 1980s when Green political parties in different parts of the world started to win seats in local councils and parliaments on platforms that integrated environmental and social issues (including economics and peace). The Second Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, recorded some localized good news stories but noted worsening trends, with climate change heralding a globalization of environmental degradation, and new technologies transmitting real-time images of starvation or brutal oppression to television screens around the world. In Rio, governments made sustainable development a formal policy goal and agreed to “adopt national strategies that should build upon and harmonize the various economic, social, and environmental policies and plans that are operating in the country”.

The Third Earth Summit (World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 2002), built on pledges made in 1992 but essentially tied its implementation plan to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015 that had been set by the UN Assembly in 2000:

Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
Achieve universal primary education
Promote gender equality and empower women
Reduce child mortality
Improve maternal health
Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases
Ensure environmental sustainability
Develop a global partnership for development

In 2005, the UN published a five-year on the report on each of the MDG goals, showing limited, and in some cases negative, progress. Also in 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis report reminded the world that all constituents of human well-being depended on the capacity of the Earth to support life, and pointed out that around two-thirds of the systems studied, including fresh water, natural fisheries, and regulation of climate, were being degraded or used unsustainably. Without a healthy environment, there can be no sustainable development path for the human species.

At the start of the 21st-century governments and people are being reminded of the assertions promulgated by their human ancestors; at your peril forget that the environment is the foundation for everything, and that collaboration among people is essential to survival.


The central challenge of unsustainable development appears straightforward. The available supply of resources (for example, raw materials, energy, and inspiration) and services (for example, water and air purification, biodegradable waste re-absorption and reuse, and soil fertility) is insufficient to meet the demand for them (a rising population consuming more and more per person). As the supply cannot be increased (the Earth cannot get bigger), then the demand must be lowered.

There are millions of examples of how sustainable development might work, ranging from housing schemes that generate more energy than they consume to new tax regimes. Widespread implementation is hampered, however, by prevailing economic strategies based on growing consumption of natural resources and the power of richer, stronger markets over weaker ones. For example, cut-price air fares encouraging high-polluting travel are more easily available than chemical-free food. The 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gases recommended by climate scientists and relief for the 1 billion plus people living on US$1 a day require more radical approaches.

Fortunately, there are signs of more fundamental change. Very few examples follow from the government, the private sector, and “civil society” (the area, separate from the state and private sector, where people organize or self-organize locally and in a largely not-for-profit way). A more engaged and value-driven citizenship, a private sector taking full responsibility for making a positive contribution to a healthy environment and social justice, and governments re-framing the definition of economic success to support both, are the minimum conditions for sustainable development. Three decades of UN summits and government strategy writing have ensured sufficient supply of declarations of intent. The crisis, as Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the UN, said in 2002, is one of implementation.


People, as consumers, are accused of being ambivalent about living “greener” lifestyles—driving cars while demanding action on climate change being the favourite example. But weak responses to confused signals (driving has got cheaper while the cost of using public transport has risen) mask a deeper change in the way society views shared problems and individual responsibilities for tackling them. In particular, there has been a rapid rise of activity in the so-called civil society. An analysis of 35 countries concluded that the annual turnover from not-for-profit organizations has reached around US$1.3 trillion a year, equivalent to that of the seventh largest country in the world and providing the equivalent of nearly 40 million jobs, with a further 190 million volunteering. The motivation is largely people’s concern for environmental and social justice—the very things currently excluded from governments’ and businesses’ definitions of economic success.



One observation of Adam Smith to stand the test of time is that businesses that thrive over time, anticipate best the future marketplace. European Union policy in this area suggests a marketplace that supports sustainable development would be one dealing in affordable, secure (over time) supplies of goods and services that, in their production, distribution, and consumption, are low in use of carbon (for example fossil fuels) and high in social and environmental welfare.

Business claims it does not yet have the policy framework it needs to invest confidently for such a future. Nevertheless, several forward-looking companies are involved in initiatives like the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, the Global Compact, or, for financial investment, the Equator Principles. Some see these initiatives as “defensive”. Others see them as a first, albeit too slow, the movement towards redefining business responsibility for the future. Helping to speed up change is a growth in funds seeking ethical investment opportunities and the rising influence of company rankings like the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes.

One company demonstrating global leadership is the petrochemical company BP. In 2005, already re-branded as an energy company, BP announced major investments in renewable energy sources. Other companies, for example, Vodafone, are recognizing the dynamism of social enterprises in local communities as a place to develop business—especially in less affluent countries with little or no infrastructure. These, and other examples of businesses investing for sustainable development may be the crucible for a new sort of capitalism based on a genuine joining of “humanitarian even activist orientation with the conventional motivations of growth and profitability”.


In December 2005, talks in Montreal about the Kyoto Protocol (a UN treaty that commits signatories to cut their emissions of climate change gases, such as carbon dioxide) and in Hong Kong (about world trade) struggled to an agreement on future implementation and negotiations. There is the good reason to criticize the UN treaty processes, and national initiatives like the EU carbon-trading scheme designed to drive down greenhouse gas emissions, for being too little, too late, but what happened in Montreal and Hong Kong were interpreted by some as historic turning points in international negotiations. The imperative of collaboration to reverse the damage of climate change and unfair trade won through the politics and imperfections of both processes.

Chances for re-engineering definitions for economic success improved during a meeting of EU environment and energy ministers in March 2005 when the United Kingdom’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, said: “More than 60 years ago in 1944, the great British economist John Maynard Keynes laid down what he believed were the foundations of economic policy—that it was for government to ensure the twin objectives of high and stable levels of growth and employment. Today we know that there is a third objective on which our economies must be built—and that is environmental care.” From 2006 future UK budget-setting parameters include resource productivity and climate change.


It is easy to be disheartened in the face of evidence about climate change and human misery at the start of the 21st century and to be awed by the radical changes to the way we think and act implied by sustainable development. Although it draws on the best of us as humans, perversely there is more negative than the positive news broadcast. For many, 2005 symbolized a time for action after 30 years of talking. It is investments made in ideas and technologies today—not tomorrow—that will determine how the future will be.

Contributed By:
Barry Dalal-Clayton
Sara Parkin